Christians intentionally use the word “sanctuary”. In our congregation, we regularly sing a hymn which asks the Lord to prepare us, the body of Christ, to be a “sanctuary”. It’s a place, people, and an idea. One reason the room where worship occurs is called a “sanctuary” is because that’s what it offers. Church, as a whole, is a place of sanctuary, refuge, and safety. Whether you’re in a worship service or a Sunday School classroom on a Sunday morning or a Thursday afternoon; the church is supposed to a place love is unconditional, grace is offered, and safety is guaranteed.
When this sense of safety is shattered, it sometimes makes the news. If clergy or church members take advantage of the vulnerable or weak and the idea of the church as a place of sanctuary is destroyed; we’ve seen the toll it can take on victims, families, and churches as they regain their moral bearings. Sensational headlines and scandals are all too familiar in Christianity and other religious traditions. The unspeakable pain caused by such abuse has done more damage to the idea of institutional religion than statistics can adequately measure or believers readily admit.
While these stories attract deserved attention and shape how denominations train clergy, there are other unreported assaults on the idea of sanctuary that can be as destructive to the health of congregation or individual believers. These attacks happen across churches, often undetected and unreported. Some go on every Sunday morning and simply part of the culture of being a church. As a result, the idea of “sanctuary” is eroded, church is seen less safe, faith is eroded, and the body of Christ is diminished.
What are these unacknowledged assaults? There is a kindness deficit in our churches and society. Where does it originate? It would be easy to blame the “comment in the name of dialogue” culture fostered by Facebook and other social media platforms. I think that’s a factor. I also believe some people have a mean streak, are tone deaf, and oblivious to the realities of Christian living no matter how long they’ve been in church.
The world is a harsh place. The church should not be. When it is, we fail. I’m not a fool. I know people do things inconsistent with Christian teaching. However, is it possible to make the church consistent with a Christ centered ethic of love, for the time we share pews and space at the Communion table? Gossip should be left at the front door; it certainly shouldn’t be repeated within earshot of person you’re talking about. This seems like common sense. The truth is it’s not. Harsh words, pessimism, and passive aggressive fueled negativity do more damage than we see and are willing to admit. As such, the church is less safe than it should be.
One of the most depressing and disturbing aspects of ministry is dealing with grief. It is part of my job to work with families and individuals at their lowest moments. If a loved one dies or someone receives the diagnosis of a serious illness, I am there to listen. I am prepared and “trained” (for lack of a better word) for this part of my job. What I’m not prepared for or adequately trained to deal with is the grief that originates from hurt feelings, tears, and sadness originating from within the church. What do I say to the person who’s heard hurtful words while standing three feet away? What do I say to this person, who heard such words, while standing in the “sanctuary”, the place of safety? What do I say to a believer in Christ who’s ready to cry because of something another believer in Christ said to them, in the sanctuary? I say I’m hurt. I say I’m sorry. I say to myself, “we don’t have to worry about schism or anything else, we’ll kill ourselves off.”
The biggest threat to United Methodism isn’t from liberals, progressives, conservatives, uniting, or covenant groups. We, as currently constituted, are our own worst enemies. Our inability to recognize and offer grace about the most mundane aspects of life, on the micro level, will prevent us from ever coming to an agreement on the macro issue human sexuality.
This reminds me of that old saying, “God prefers a kind atheist to a mean Christian”. I agree. The longer I’m in ministry the truer it rings.
Richard Lowell Bryant